Though they’re still fighting to be heard in the entertainment industry, Asian-Americans have found a refuge of sorts in YouTube.
Members of the minority group, who’ve been largely brushed aside by mainstream media, have emerged as some of the strongest voices on the video-sharing site. As YouTube has steadily risen in popularity, Asians have dominated. Among those top online personalities is Anna Akana.
Akana, whose channel now boasts more than 2 million subscribers, has used humor and wit to create a massive repertoire of funny skits and short films on topics ranging from cats (she has six!) to mental health. She does not shy away from her Asian-American identity online, often making videos that speak to the community — like this one on yellow fever, or this one about that moment of solidarity that occurs when Asian strangers in the U.S. spot each other. (It’s so real.)
The actress will be starring in upcoming teen dramedy “Youth & Consequences,” premiering on March 7 on the paid streaming service YouTube Red. In the series, which is being described as a “woke ‘Mean Girls,’” Akana plays high school queen bee Farrah Cutney.
The significance of an Asian-American lead who bucks the quiet, obedient Asian stereotype isn’t lost on Akana, who hopes to show viewers what Asian-American representation can look like.
HuffPost sat down with Akana to chat about her new series, the Asian-American space on YouTube, as well as why fellow YouTuber Logan Paul’s trip to Japan was all-around horrifying.
Oftentimes, Asian characters assume background roles or are just completely erased from the narrative. How does it feel to play a character who’s front and center?
I’ve said this a lot but this definitely feels like my dream project. It’s the kind of show I loved watching ― I loved high school dramas and more importantly it has a female ensemble that’s diverse and reflects real life. [The characters] are incredibly empowered and complex and not just accessories in a man’s life. Especially being able to be the lead character of something like this, as an Asian woman who’s struggled to be seen past stereotypes, and to even have Piper Curda in it ― two strong Asian women vying for power, but it’s not women against women ― feels like absolutely everything I’ve been working for for the last decade.
YouTube has been a place where many strong Asian-American personalities have launched their careers. But we’re still struggling in other platforms and on-screen. Why do you think YouTube has become such a haven for Asian-American personalities?
I think, definitely, the reason why Asians are on YouTube is because we weren’t seeing representation anywhere else. It was finally a platform that catered to us having representation. At the beginning of YouTube, the biggest stars were Asian ... They were able to amass incredible followings. I was introduced to it by my brother and I watched because it was like, “Wow, that’s someone who looks like me and they’re funny and they’re great, and you never get to see Asians acting this way.”
You have experience in both the web industry as well as Hollywood. Do you feel a stark difference between both industries in terms of how you’re treated as an Asian-American?
It’s a little harder to say because the lines have blurred a lot. I think the difference to me feels like creative involvement. In traditional, if I’m hired as an actor, I don’t get a lot of creative say in what happens whereas on YouTube, if it’s great, I get all the glory, if it sucks, I get all the shame because I’m the driving force behind whatever I’m putting out.
The most interesting part is now that I’ve had a following online, I’m able to leverage that and use that financial stability to turn down roles that I now feel are degrading and I don’t want to go out for. At the time, it felt really necessary to go out for certain things because I felt I needed credits and that was all that was available to me. Now I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that anymore. I can go for roles that represent me and my race in a positive way and I can make a positive change.
Do you feel like there’s been a difference in the roles available to you as time has gone on from when you started on YouTube?
Oh, 100 percent. I have so much more of an empowering say in my career now. My first job ever was in what was rated something like the worst movie of all time by Metacritic. I played an Asian driving student, and the whole scene was basically this guy called “The Amazing Racist” berating me and asking me if my pussy was slanted and how I could possibly see out of my tiny eyes. It felt awful that I was like, “Well, this is paying my rent and it’s my very first movie credit so cool.” And I feel like these days now I can absolutely look at that and be like, “No, 100 percent no.” My manager would never even bring something like that to me. It has completely impacted how powerful I feel about what I get to put out.
Yeah, there’s sometimes a tendency for people to blame an actor of color to take a stereotypical role but especially for Asians, who have few roles available to them in the first place, it’s much more complicated than that.
There’s a line that Farrah says that I think about all the time ― it’s “Get on top and then you can make change.” I think that is so true because you have to start from the bottom and then work your way into the system.
The year started off with Logan Paul’s horribly offensive suicide video, which you spoke out about. Do you think that situation was handled properly?
I think by de-monetizing his channel and taking him out of the partnership, [YouTube] made a strong statement about the type of content they were going to tolerate on the platform, which I commend them for.
I put 100 percent of the blame on Logan Paul. I think we’ve gotten so desensitized to everything ... It’s a huge omen about what we expect for content to be. I loved the reaction to it, I loved how everyone was like, “This is not OK, and we’re not going to tolerate that.” But then the very next week he came out with a video with him tasing dead rats and taking a fish out of water.
I’m really disappointed he didn’t take this opportunity to really learn and understand the power he has over young people, but that’s his task. So the most we can do is just speak out.
Another aspect to that incident that was covered less in the media was the way in which Logan Paul treats Asians or portrays them in his videos. You see him doing offensive things, like treating people like Pokémon, along with the already offensive suicide video. What was your reaction to that?
It was awful, especially because Japan is all about respect. They are an incredibly respectful nation. I lived there when I was a kid and was enrolled in public school and the sense of community is as strong as America’s sense of individuality. They place such an emphasis on conducting yourself as a respectable member of society who contributes accordingly.
He made Americans seem like total fucking buffoons. It’s heartbreaking, because I did watch that video of him throwing Pokémon balls in the street and at elderly people and he prefaced it with recognizing that Japan is a place for respect. To not only be completely aware of the country you’re visiting and their values, but to completely ignore that and do stuff for the sake of your content was just gross and disrespectful.
Would you say there’s a way to bring in viewers and put out viral content without having to resort to exploiting shock?
Yes! I would hope so. Look at Liza Koshy. She’s a huge YouTube star and the whole premise of her videos is dancing and being silly and being funny, and people don’t have to resort to shock value or being insane in a public space to get a following. I’m very against that whole culture.
Going back to your new series ― it’s being talked about as a “woke ‘Gossip Girl’” or “woke ‘Mean Girls.’” What kind of social issues do you go into?
We touch on transgender issues ― there’s an episode dedicated to a character who we’re not sure if he’s trans or not and he’s trying to change in the girl’s locker room. There’s a big debate of, is this some guy who’s an asshole jock who’s trying to take advantage of the laws to watch women change? Or is there something going on here?
We also tackle issues of social media and privacy. Some people get doxxed in the series in terms of their private sexual lives or infidelity. The thing that [creator Jason Ubaldi] did best with these scripts was he tackled social media in a way I hadn’t seen before and treated these teens as the sophisticated adults that they are ... Now teens have access to everything they want to know immediately and that’s such a frightening place to be. High school already felt like life and death to me. The stakes felt so high because the reference level in life is so short. For kids today, it’s crazy. They can’t get away from high school no matter where they are!
When you’re in that writers’ room, creating, how do you bring in voices from other issues that you’re touching on? How are you able to make these issues feel authentic in representation?
It was really important to us ― because none of us are trans ― to consult someone from the community and ask, “How are we representing this?” The hard part is ― and I think this is the same with a non-Asian writing an Asian story ― you want to believe that all experiences are universal to a degree and we’re all human and we can all relate to each other and we are compassionate with each other. But at the same time, everybody’s story is completely different. Everyone’s view on something is completely different, so even consulting a trans person we were like, “OK, we’re getting one opinion on this but there might be 10 or 20 other people who disagree with this person.” So we tried to make it the most empathetic, compassionate story possible of someone being outed against their will and someone going through a confusing time.
Do you have any advice for any Asian-Americans trying to make it on YouTube?
I would say, don’t give up. You would be surprised to see how lazy people in LA are. If you have tiger parents who’ve instilled a work ethic in you, you can make it here. We don’t see representation, so you don’t think it’s possible, but oh, my God ― the amount of friends I have here who just don’t do the work is astounding. I just try to tell people, “Come! Be ready prepared to work hard and for it to take a long-ass time.” But if you’re willing to take 12 years for medical school, fuck it. Come be an actor, come be a writer, come be a director. It’ll take the same amount of time and you’ll be doing something that you love.